Heartworms are a debilitating parasite transmitted by mosquitos. They live in the heart and arteries leading to the lungs. They can infect both dogs and cats, as well as several species of wildlife. Here in Ringgold and the greater Chattanooga area, heartworms are a year-round threat.
The heartworm begins its life cycle as a microfilaria - a heartworm baby - circulating in the blood stream of an infected host. A mosquito bites the host and, as part of its blood meal, ingests the microfilaria. The microfilaria goes through a series of changes within the mosquito, and is then implanted into a new host when the mosquito feeds again.
Once inside the new host, the microfilaria travels down through the soft tissue and into the circulatory system. It makes its way into the heart, where it matures into an adult heartworm. Adult heartworms are 12-13 inches long. If there is a male and female present, they will begin reproducing and the microfilaria will begin circulating in the blood stream, making the host infective via the mosquito population.
Heartworms affect each host differently. How many heartworms, their location (heart or arteries), other medical conditions, and the host's immune system all change how the host responds to an infection. Some hosts show little to no symptoms for a long time, others become very sickly within a few months. Cats tend to display respiratory symptoms, termed H.A.R.D (heartworm associated respiratory disease). Dogs will often have a cough and not be as active as they once were.
Left untreated, heartworms will continue to damage the heart, arteries, and lungs. They can cause congestive heart failure and eventually, death. Once the damage is done, it cannot be reversed. Heartworms can be eliminated in dogs, with much expense and prolonged convalescence. There is currently no treatment for cats.
While many people believe their pets aren't at risk if they don't go outside, or spend very little time outside, this isn't true. There is no such thing as an outdoor mosquito! They can find their way indoors, and if an infected mosquito manages to bite your dog or cat, they can transmit heartworms to your beloved companion.
Fortunately, there are safe and effective medications used to prevent heartworm infection in both dogs and cats. They are typically given once monthly, either by mouth or as a liquid on the back of the neck. Most not only provide protection against heartworms but also control various intestinal parasites as well. There are even options that include flea and tick control! For dogs, there is also an injection available that will prevent heartworms for 12 months (dogs must be at least 1 year old before they can receive the injection). We will be more than happy to discuss all of the options with you and help you decide on an appropriate product for your pet's lifestyle and your budget.